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PC World

The digital century: Tech trailblazers


November 24, 1999
Web posted at: 12:27 p.m. EST (1727 GMT)

by the PC World staff

(IDG) -- It might seem as though the World Wide Web burst on the scene fully realized in the mid-1990s, but it was a long time abornin'. In 1945 a government scientist named Vannevar Bush theorized about a futuristic communications device that he dubbed a memex, which in retrospect sounds amazingly like a browser-equipped PC. In 1960, Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext, conceived a Weblike information network called Project Xanadu (a project he's still working on today). And of course, the Web sits atop the infrastructure established by the ARPAnet in 1969.

But the Web really got going in March 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, devised a system that would allow the lab's researchers to share disparate documents in hyperlinked, browsable form. By 1992, his project -- dubbed the World Wide Web -- had begun to catch on among the Internet's then-exclusive populace of scientists and researchers. Among its fans was Marc Andreessen, an undergrad with a job at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. In 1993, working with NCSA programmer Eric Bina, Andreessen designed a highly graphical point-and-click browser, named NCSA Mosaic. The Web's popularity began to skyrocket -- especially after Andreessen and Bina joined a start-up called Netscape in 1994 and spearheaded the creation of an even better browser, known as Navigator.

Monday:The Digital Century: The PC

Tuesday:The Digital Century: Software and the Internet

Wednesday:The Digital Century: Tech Trailblazers

Thursday:The Digital Century: Video games & Computing's Hall of Shame

Friday:The Digital Century: Computing Through the Ages


How fast has the Web grown? Put it this way: It took five years for the number of servers on the Web to go from 0 to around 1500. Another five years later, the number of servers has surpassed 7 million, and the figure keeps growing.
--Harry McCracken

Mail-order pride
Mention a dormitory and most people think of rooms littered with books, bottle caps, and pizza cartons. But if you visited Michael Dell's dorm room in 1983, you'd have found CPUs and floppy drives. While Dell's classmates were cramming for midterms, he was cramming circuit cards into motherboards and selling PCs via mail order. Before completing his first year at the University of Texas in Austin, the erstwhile premed student had abandoned school and founded PCs Limited, precursor to Dell Computer.

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Michael Dell's days as a dorm-room tycoon are part of computer industry lore. But his real innovation was the direct-sales model. By cutting out the retailer, he revolutionized the way PCs were sold. "They're not just the company that made the box, they're the people that sold it to you," says Roger Kay, research manager for International Data Corporation in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Now with $18 billion in revenue, Dell is a long way from UT's Dobie Center dormitory. But his namesake company continues to lead the way in direct computer sales, most recently by pioneering direct sales over the Internet. Not bad for a college dropout.
--Daniel Tynan

Amazing grace
Without standard programming languages, computing would be a Tower-of-Babel-­style mess. Much of the credit for making order out of the chaos goes to Grace Murray Hopper -- a Vassar math professor, a rear admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and one of the first women to make a mark in the world of computing.

Hopper questioned conventions all her life. By 1955, prompted by a desire to write programs that would allow nonscientists to use computers, she'd developed Flow-matic -- the first computing language to use words such as "count" and "display." In 1959 that program grew into Common-Business-Oriented Language, which Hopper wrote with colleagues at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. COBOL revolutionized the way computers operated, marking the first time they responded to words rather than numbers.

Former students remember Hopper as a colorful and dynamic character. "I was a freshman at Vassar in 1934 and I was completely enamored with [her] teaching," remembers Winifred Asprey, the founder of the computer science department at Vassar. "She also taught me how to smoke."
--Aoife McEvoy

Veni, Vidi, VisiCalc
The software industry's Holy Grail is the "killer app" -- a program so essential that consumers buy computers just to use it. The archetypal killer app is VisiCalc, the first digital spreadsheet.

Toiling in an attic in Arlington, Massachusetts, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston devised the program in 1979. By adding up columns and rows of numbers on the fly, their software revolutionized number-crunching and completed in seconds tasks that would take an accountant hours to finish. More than 700,000 copies of the $99 program sold, making it the most popular software of its time.

But Bricklin and Frankston never patented VisiCalc, and by the mid-eighties Lotus's more sophisticated 1-2-3 had eclipsed it in sales. That program was in turn surpassed by Microsoft's Excel.

Bricklin and Frankston's design days weren't over. Bricklin went on to create the Trellix Web-publishing program, and Frankston pioneered home networking via phone lines.
--Harry McCracken

Do you, uh, Yahoo?
In April 1994, two Stanford grad students caught a break when their professor left town on sabbatical. Engineering students David Filo and Jerry Yang had little to do but surf the Web. It didn't take long for them to compile a hefty bookmark list, organized by subject. Eventually they thought: Why not put it on the Web? They slapped together a database program to handle the job, posted the results online, and the rest is history. The bookmark collection, now known as Yahoo, receives some 80 million visitors a month. As for Filo and Yang? They're gazillionaires, giving hope to grad students everywhere.
--Dan Miller

The 10 richest computer honchos

Rank  Name  Net worth* ($ billion)  
1  William H. Gates, III (Microsoft)  85  
2  Paul Allen (Microsoft)  40  
3  Steve Ballmer (Microsoft)  23  
4  Michael Dell (Dell Computer)  20  
5  Gordon Moore (Intel)  15  
6  Lawrence Ellison (Oracle)  13  
7  Jeffrey Bezos (  7.8  
8  William Hewlett (Hewlett-Packard)  6.6  
9  Craig McCaw (Telephony)  6.4  
10  Theodore Waitt (Gateway)  6.2  

* 1999 ranking

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Ted Nelson's mystical Xanadu
(Network World Fusion)
The father of the mouse speaks
Women in computing
Beep, memory: A guide to computer history on the Web
(PC World Online)
Web inventor sees his baby as a 'play space'
(Network World Fusion)
Dan Bricklin on the rules of the software game
(PC World Online)
What we learned on the Web
Year 2000 World
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The History of the Internet and the WWW
"As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush
The World's Richest People
National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA)
About Grace Murray Hopper
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